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The How and the Why
by Sarah Treem
Directed by Nancy Bell
New Jewish Theatre
January 25, 2018

Sophia Brown, Amy Loui Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

The How and the Why, the newest production from the New Jewish Theatre, is a story about relationships, about science, and about women. A one-act, two-woman show, Sarah Treem’s play is a strong showcase for two excellent local performers. It’s also an in-depth look at life through the eyes of two women at different stages of life who are inextricably tied to one another in more ways than one.

As the story begins, award-winning evolutionary biologist Zelda Kahn (Amy Loui) sits in her office, alone, but she’s not alone for long. Soon, young graduate student Rachel Hardeman (Sophia Brown) arrives, and it appears that this may be a student-teacher meeting, but it’s more than that, as is evidenced by the obvious mixture of curiosity and awkwardness upon their initial meeting. Rachel has submitted a paper for presentation at a major conference of which Zelda is on the board, but that’s just the beginning. Through the course of the production, the two women gradually get to know one another, and we the audience learn about them in the process. That’s the basic premise, but a lot of ground is covered here in terms of establishing this relationship and revealing the differences and similarities between these two women at two different stages of their lives and careers. The playwright does a good job of making this situation credible, even though some of the plot may seem implausible. The play covers issues of science, family relationships, love and romance, dependence and independence, personal and professional priorities, goals and compromises, and more. It’s a somewhat sweeping range of subject matter made personal through these two well-drawn characters and their building relationship.

The characters are the story here, in a major sense, so ideal casting is essential. The performers here are both remarkable, not only convincing as individuals but also believably conveying an initially awkward but obviously important, growing relationship as these two women try to figure out how to relate to each other, as well as working out important choices in their own lives. Loui convinces as the older, sometimes wiser but sometimes regretful Zelda, projecting an air of confidence along with a real sense of vulnerability. She is well-matched by Brown, who gives a determined, earnest, occasionally angry and equally vulnerable portrayal of Rachel. This is a compelling story, but it’s made all the more real by the sensitive, strong performances of its leads.

Technically, the show is also impressive. Peter and Margery Spack’s two-sided set represents Zelda’s well-appointed office and then, later, a turntable revolves to reveal an equally detailed dive bar set. The whole set is also surrounded by representations of planets, shimmering and illuminated by Michael Sullivan’s excellent lighting. The costumes by Felia Davenport suit the characters appropriately, as well.

This production is notable in that it’s so focused on women. The playwright, the stars, the director and several of the designers are women, and a major focus of the story is the experience of what it’s like to be a woman in a traditionally male-dominated field, examining issues of science that are particularly centered around women. It’s also about an intriguing, thoroughly believable relationship, and as the title suggests, the “hows” and “whys” of life. It’s a fascinating story, thoughtfully staged at New Jewish Theatre.

Amy Loui, Sophia Brown Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

The New Jewish Theatre is presenting The How and The Why the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until February 11, 2018

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Faceless
by Selina Fillinger
Directed by BJ Jones
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Studio
January 12, 2018

Michael James Reed, Susaan Jamshidi, Lindsay Stock, Ross Lehman
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Joe Dempsey, Lindsay Stock
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The latest Studio production at the Rep, Faceless, couldn’t be more timely if it tried. It’s one of those stories that’s so  plausible, it may as well be based on reality, even though it’s a fictional tale. Tackling many issues that are at the forefront of the modern political and social conversation, this play is challenging, affecting, and impeccably cast.

Delving into the worlds of religion, politics, the war on terror, and social media, this story follows the trial of a Chicago teenager, Susie Glenn (Lindsay Stock), who was arrested for conspiring with terrorists after attempting to travel overseas to join an ISIS-involved soldier with whom she has only interacted online, even though she intends to marry him and has converted to Islam under his influence. The story starts with lead prosecutor Scott Bader (Michael James Reed) recruiting Harvard-educated attorney Claire Fathi (Susaan Jamshidi), the American-born Muslim daughter of French and Iranian immigrants, to assist him on the case.  It’s a high profile case, and Claire knows exactly why the politically aspirational Scott wants her there, and after some resistance she agrees to join the team. Defending Susie is Mark Arenberg (Ross Lehman),  with an excellent reputation who is brought in by her widowed father Alan (Joe Dempsey). The structure is semi-linear, in that the story generally moves forward, but there are also frequent flashback sequences showing how Susie, whose police officer mother was killed in the line of duty about a year previously, came to be involved with “Reza” online, showing texts and tweets projected on a screen, as “Reza” remains shrouded in mystery–a shadowy figure whose face we never see, and whose voice is given a ghostly echoing quality. The story explores the development of the case from various sides, the preparation of the legal teams as well as the personal stories of Susie and Claire, gradually narrowing focus to the developing relationship between these two characters, as Claire learns about Susie through the case, initially dismissing her as “Muslim Barbie”. As the trial continues, Clarie is forced to look more closely at Susie, and what has brought her to this point, as well as confronting issues in her own personal life and family relationships. The play covers many issues in addition to the main idea, from exploration of some aspects of online culture, to teenage alienation, to press sensationalism, to religious differences between the two Muslim characters, Mark who is Jewish, Alan who is an atheist, and Scott whose background is left more nebulous but who isn’t above using Claire’s religious background as an angle to get publicity for the case. There’s also an insightful exploraton of grief and father-daughter relationships. There are a lot of issues here, from the obvious to the less apparent, and the nuanced script is incisive, thought-provoking, and challenging. Many questions are raised, but not all of them are answered, and that lends an extra air of authenticity to the production.

The characters here are complex and richly drawn, and extremely well-cast. Everyone is excellent, with the focus being largely on Jamshidi’s confident, vulnerable portrayal of Claire and Stock’s alternately defiant, grieving, lonely, and impressionable Susie. There are also strong moments for Dempsey as Susie’s also grieving father, the always strong Reed as the somewhat cocky Scott,  and Lehman as the thorough, thoughtful Mark. The trial preparations and the courtroom scenes themselves can be riveting and dramatic, but there are also some quietly chilling moments as Susie’s backstory plays out. The excellent set by John Culbert, the evocative lighting by Heather Gilbert and sound by Andre Pluess,  and the superb projections designed by Stephan Mazurek, showing Susie’s texts and tweets and texts to her shadowy “fiance”, add to the chilling drama. This is a show in which the technical aspects augment the performances in a critical way to help convey the overall feeling of the story.

The play is supsenseful, timely, smartly paced and impressively staged by director BJ Jones and the cast. This isn’t a very long play, but a lot goes on in its approximately 90 minute running time. It’s not a true story, but the way it’s portrayed here, it’s easy to see how this could happen. There’s a lot to think about here in terms of politics, religion, family relationships, and more. It may be called Faceless, but a major part of this play’s effectiveness is the fact that it gives these issues a face. It personalizes issues that can easily be thought of in the abstract. Here, the drama is real, it’s intense, and it’s well worth seeing.

Joe Dempsey, Lindsay Stock
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

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A Walk In the Woods
by Lee Blessing
Directed by Renee Sevier-Monsey
West End Players Guild
September 30, 2017

Tom Moore, Tim Naegelin
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is starting their 2017-2018 season with Lee Blessing’s 1988 A Walk In The Woods, a celebrated Pulitzer Prize nominee that’s very much of its era when looking at it today. At WEPG, it comes across as an earnest, if subdued, look at a particular time and place in world history.

Probably the most striking thing about this particular production is its set, designed by Jacob Winslow, who also designed the excellent lighting. Here, the basement of Union Avenue Christian Church has been transformed into a wooded area somewhere in Geneva, Switzerland, with real mulch, logs, leaves and branches spread around to achieve an authentic effect. A simple wooden bench is the only furniture, and the audience is seated in sections surrounding the performance area on three sides. It’s an effective staging conceit, basically bringing the audience into the woods with the play’s characters, who are two arms negotiators. The Soviet Andrey Bottnvinnik (Tom Moore) is older, avuncular, personable but wearied by years in this job. The American John Honeyman (Tim Naegelin) is new on the job, and he’s more of the by-the-book kind of guy, but also full of idealism and hope that a real agreement on nuclear arms reduction can be achieved. Over the course of the play, the two talk and develop a relationship, and that is essentially the story. The personalities of the characters, and their back-and-forth discussion on matters as serious as world peace and as seemingly mundane as country music, are the centerpiece to this story which seems to depend a lot on archetypes as much as specific characters, although those archetypes are examined and challenged as well. At first it appears that we’re seeing the “older, wiser vs. the young upstart” but over the course of the show we see that there’s more to these characters than the initial impressions.

Although this play was timely when it was first written, now it plays as a Cold War time capsule of sorts, although it still has its moments of relevance to today’s issues, and the general idea of diplomacy as a difficult but essential pursuit. Blessing’s script is insightful at times, but it’s also deliberate sometimes to the point of being a little too deliberate. This strikes me as the type of play that particularly benefits from strong casting. All plays benefit from good performances, but here that seems most essential. The performances here are strong, although not as dynamic as they possibly could be. Moore is particularly engaging as the charming but deceptively cynical Bottvinnik. His Russian accent is convincing, as well. Naegelin as Honeyman is also convincing, and both actors display convincing chemistry as their relationship builds and grows throughout the play.

For the most part, A Walk In the Woods is a compelling character study and a window into a time in world history that is still in living memory for many in the audience. Its look at the process of diplomacy and the struggle for communication in the midst of cynicism is one that is still relevant today, as well. It’s an intriguing opening for WEPG’s season.

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The 2017 St. Lou Fringe Festival is over now, and the biggest regret I have regarding it is that I didn’t see more shows. It’s a great festival celebrating all kinds of performing arts, especially theatre in the more “edgy” or experimental vein. The four shows I saw this year reflected the Fringe’s attitude in different ways. From complex experimental pieces, to outrageous comedy, to challenging drama, the best of what theatre can be is there at the Fringe.

I missed last year’s Festival, so it’s been a little while since I was able to soak up the Fringe atmosphere, and a few things have changed since the last time I attended the festival. Generally, the festival seems more streamlined and polished. Gone are Fringe badges and playing cards for tickets, and the area of the festival isn’t as spread out as it used to be, focusing more on a few blocks of Grand Boulevard in Grand Center. Also, the newly renovated Grandel Theatre makes an ideal venue for the festival’s headline shows. It’s still the Fringe with all its quirkiness and variety, but it’s also showing signs of having matured somewhat. The Festival is even more cementing itself as a fixture in the St. Louis performing arts scene.

Here are brief reviews of the four shows I saw:

Snow White

Directed and Adapted by Lucy Cashion
Equally Represented Arts

Julia Crump, Will Bonfiglio (right) and cast
Photo by Meredith LaBounty
ERA

This year’s local headline act was this new production from the innovative ERA and its fearless leader, director and adaptor Lucy Cashion, who has given audiences a Snow White like they have never seen before. Like ERA’s versions of Shakespeare and other classical works, this isn’t a straightforward telling of the story. In fact, its non-linear nature is highlighted in an “instruction sheet” handed to audience members before the show. There’s a lot going on here, with various versions of the fairy tale being mixed with pop culture influences, cultural criticism, philosophy, and psychology, exploring issues of identity, sexuality, race, authority, and more. There are a lot of concepts thrown together here, and it can be a challenge to sort through everything, but it’s definitely a worthwhile and fascinating exercise. It’s one of those shows that I really wish I could see more than once.

There are some echoes of the Disney Snow White here, but there’s a lot more as well, and the characters are here but they’re different. Here, the story is narrated by Snow White’s imperious, German-accented biological mother (a terrific Katy Keating), and acted out on a simple, abstract set designed by Cashion and comprised mostly of various movable pieces of furniture and surmounted by a giant video screen. The use of music and video, composed and designed by Joe Taylor, is impressive and clever, with the magic mirror becoming a unique character called Hogo DeBergerac, voiced by Randy Brachman but being “spoken” through the mouths of the characters themselves on the giant video screen. The characters take turns addressing the mirror, and Jane (Maggie Conroy), the haughty “Wicked Stepmother” figure, is obsessed with it, and also to a different degree with Snow White (Julia Crump). Here, Snow White is a pampered and somewhat bossy princess who lives with seven men—Bill (Mitch Eagles), Clem (Alex Fyles), Edward (Anthony Kramer), Henry (Carl Overly, Jr.), Kevin (Reginald Pierre), Hubert (Gabe Taylor), and Dan (Pete Winfrey).  The men, outfitted in coveralls with name tags, have their own issues to sort out, not just in relation to Snow White but toward one another and within themselves. There’s also Paul (Will Bonfiglio), the prince figure, who likes to take baths with his typewriter, blows bubbles, joins a monastery for a time, and undertakes his own personal quest for purpose, that may or may not involve Snow White in some way or another. If there’s a lot of vague language here, that’s fitting, because this is a play about concepts as much as it is about characters. There are some striking visual moments, aided by Cashion’s striking design and Marcy Wiegert’s stylish, whimsical costumes, as well as by Taylor’s music. There are moments of bursting into song, as well.

If this sounds odd, it’s because it is. It’s ERA, and nothing is conventional. The casting is excellent across the board, with excellent moments for all of the characters, and there are a lot of ideas even if the story isn’t always exactly coherent. I hope ERA stages this again elsewhere, because I would like to see it again. It’s new, it’s old, it’s different, and it challenges conventional thinking about a well-known story and characters. In short, it’s what Cashion and ERA do best.

On the Exhale

by Martin Zimmerman

Directed by Seth Gordon and Starring Elizabeth Ann Townsend

This short one-woman show is intense, poignant, and an excellent showcase for its star, Elizabeth Ann Townsend. It only runs about an hour, but there’s a lot of drama in that hour, told from the point of view of an unnamed English professor and single mother whose conception of life and the world around her is shaken by a school shooting. It’s a highly personal account even though the character isn’t given a name, and the echoes of the Sandy Hook tragedy are unmistakable. Told in a first-person narrative style, the structure of the play makes the character’s journey immediate and personal, as Townsend explores issues of family, grief, fear, and the problematic politics of guns.  It’s a tour-de-force performance by Townsend as a woman whose journey of grief takes her in places she never thought she would go.  This was a simply riveting production.

Liberals vs. Zombies vs. Conservatives

Written and performed by Dan Viggers, starring Sarah Porter, Matt Pentecost and Zak Farmer

This is a timely, satirical musical taking prominent issues from the day and combining them with music and zombies. I guess a zombie apocalypse is as good a premise as any to bring disparate characters together and force them to work out their conflicts. Here, composer and writer Viggers has crafted a simple, goofy story full of jokes and caricatures that has some tuneful songs and provides a lot of laughs. With jokes about everything from man buns to Fox News and more, it tells the story of two liberals, Lena (Porter) and Oliver (Pentecost), who are fleeing from the zombies and come across the homestead of a conservative, Trump-supporting loner, Ted (Farmer). Forced to confront their differences and figure out what to do about the crisis situation, the three end up learning more about one another than they had wished. All three performers give good performances, with great voices and comic timing, and most of the jokes are funny, although the twist ending is somewhat abrupt and the final “message” is a little simplistic. Still, it’s an entertaining show, and a good example of the kind of variety that Fringe has to offer.

Dead Gothics Society

produced by Alicen Moser

This show is just a whole lot of fun, especially for anyone with an interest in literature. Producer Alicen Moser, who also acts in the production, has brought together a team of performers and crew (including Jimmy Bernatowicz, Andre Estamian, Katie Schoenfeld, Hannah Grimm, Tori Thomas, Ryan Lawson-Maeske, and Ben Lewis) to play an intriguing game. Hosted by Satan in Purgatory, a collection of dead writers and poets including Lord Byron, Mary Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe, and others take turns acting out stories they’ve written that range from the simply bizarre to the downright creepy, with a lot of humor thrown in for good measure. The audience then votes on their two favorites, who then go head-to-head in a trivia contest with the winner receiving a ticket to go straight to Heaven, and the loser getting a ticket to Hell. It’s a smart, clever, funny, and irreverent production that’s a whole lot of fun to watch and participate in as an audience member. There are some fun running jokes and some great performances by all, with Lawson-Maeske as probably the MVP for his memorable turns as Byron and the Marquis de Sade. This is another excellent example of the kinds of shows a festival like Fringe showcases so well.

Overall, my Fringe 2017 experience was enlightening, energizing, and entertaining. I enjoyed the shows I saw this year, and I look forward to seeing more of what the Fringe brings next year.

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The Tennessee Williams Festival may be officially over, but there are still two plays running that you still have a chance to see. They’re both excellent productions of lesser-known plays by Williams, and they are well worth checking out. Here are my reviews:

Will Mr. Merriwether Return From Memphis?

By Tennessee Williams

Directed by Jef Awada

The Stockton House proved to be a popular and ideal venue for The St. Louis Rooming House Plays at last year’s festival.  Having the plays performed in a real historic house lent a lot of atmosphere to the production, creating an experience that almost seemed like time travel. The same effect is achieved in this year’s production of Will Mr. Merriwether Return From Memphis? In fact, it often seems like the house itself is a character in the play.

Unlike last year’s production here, the audience isn’t divided into groups. This is one play with a more linear structure, although it’s not too linear. Here, loneliness and the yearning for personal connection are on clear display. The story, set near the turn of the 20th Century, centers around a widowed mother, Louise (Julie Layton), who is still relatively young and has become obsessed with a young lodger with whom she had a brief relationship, the Mr. Merriwether of the title. He’s left for a new job in Memphis and hasn’t let Louise know if, or when, he will return. Louise is often at odds with her teenage daughter, Gloria (Molly McCaskill), whose choice of outfits and obvious delight in the interest of local boys bothers her mother. There’s also Louise’s neighbor, the older and also widowed Nora (Kelley Weber), whose interest in the supernatural coincides with Louise’s. The two frequently talk about summoning “apparitions”—ghosts of various figures from history, who tell them their own stories of sorrow and loneliness. While Louise and Nora conduct séances, attend French class, and miss their husbands and the frequently mentioned Mr. Merriwether, Gloria indulges in an encounter with a boy from her class, identified in the program as Romantically Handsome Youth (Jacob Flekier).

This play covers a lot of issues in its meandering story, focusing on the loneliness of its older characters and the romantic and sexual exploration of Gloria and her classmate, and Louise’s jealousy of her daughter’s youth and romantic exploits. Music figures into the story a great deal, as well, provided by Jack Wild as the banjo player who is occasionally mentioned by the characters, playing various songs including “La Vie En Rose” for Gloria and the Youth, whose encounter is acted out in the form of dance, as they travel throughout the house, often followed by a glaring, wistful Louise. Terry Meddows, Sophia Brown, and Bob Harvey also appear in a variety of roles, mostly in drag, with Meddows and Harvey playing various women and Brown playing mostly male characters, including the apparitions of painter Vincent Van Gogh and poet Arthur Rimbaud. Meddows is excellent as Gloria’s enthusiastic schoolteacher, among other characters; and Harvey makes an impression as the town’s strict librarian and others. Meddows, Brown, and Harvey are especially memorable as three Crones who are apparently supposed to be the Eumenides, or the Fates.

Layton, as Louise, gives an achingly authentic portrayal of a supremely lonely woman who longs not only for a real, personal connection, but also for her youth. Weber is equally strong as Nora, who is excited to meet the various apparitions she summons, but also reveals her own underlying loneliness. McCaskill exudes youthful energy as the curious, flirtatious Gloria, and Flekier is charming as her shy but captivated young beau. These two have strong chemistry in acting and in dancing.

The production values here are strong, fitting the play into the Stockton House with a great deal of style and atmosphere. Robin McGee’s costumes, Michael Sullivan’s lighting, Abby Schmidt’s wig design, and James Robey’s choreography all contribute to the sometimes wistful, sometimes whimsical tone of this play.  The setting works so well that it seems like the play was meant to be performed this way. It’s an experience that’s better seen than described, and a truly memorable production.

Will Mr. Merriwether Return From Memphis? is running at the Stockton House until May 21, 2017

Small Craft Warnings

by Tennessee Williams

Directed by Richard Corley

Photo by Peter Wochniak
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

As the famous theme song to the TV show Cheers states, “sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name”. Well, sometimes you do, and sometimes you don’t. In Tennessee Williams’ 1971 play Small Craft Warnings, we meet a disparate collection of characters who are at turns familiar with one another and alienated.  It’s a character study with characters who sometimes seem a little too broadly drawn, but they are fascinating all the same, and the cast is extremely strong.

Set in a seaside dive bar called “Monk’s”, the story doesn’t really have much of a plot. Monk (Peter Mayer) opens the bar and gradually, the regulars a few new faces drift in and tell their stories. There’s a little bit of character-based conflict, but mostly this is a character study, and another look at Williams’s common theme of loneliness.  The characters include the emotional, opinionated Leona (Elizabeth Townsend), who is especially upset this evening because it’s the anniversary of the death of her beloved brother, a violinist who died young. Leona’s at the end of her rope with her swaggering, bigoted boyfriend Bill (Eric Dean White), who spends most of the play bragging about how he doesn’t work, hitting on the fragile, erratic Violet (Magan Wiles), and insulting various people, including Leona’s late brother because he was gay. There’s also Doc, a doctor who has lost his medical license but who still practices medicine anyway, including going to deliver a baby at the nearby trailer park. Steve (Jared Sanz-Agero), a cook, is sort of dating Violet but isn’t sure what to do with her most of the time. Also arriving at the bar unexpectedly are Quentin (John Bratkowski), an extremely jaded former screenwriter, and Bobby (Spencer Milford), an optimistic, free-spirited young man who has been riding his bike from Iowa to Mexico, and who the much older Quentin has picked up for a tryst. Basically, the characters take turns sharing monologues about their lives, all reflecting degrees of loneliness and despair except for the still idealistic Bobby, who reminds Leona of her late brother. There are a few volatile interactions, especially involving Leona, Violet, Bill, and Doc, but there isn’t really much of a story here. It’s essentially a collection of monologues with the framework of an evening at the bar. We see the dependence and neediness in some of the relationships, as well as the yearning for purpose and connection.

Although there isn’t a lot of story here, this play is an excellent showcase for the first-rate cast that has been assembled here. Townsend is loud, brash, and moody as Leona, credibly navigating her up-and-down emotional shifts, sparring effectively with White, who does a great job playing against type as the self-absorbed, smarmy Bill. Jeremy Lawrence is appropriately melancholy as the affable but sad, alcoholic Doc. Wiles, as the unpredictable as desperately lonely Violet, is a real standout, bringing a great deal of sympathy to her role of an aimless young woman who will take a small bit of attention wherever she can find it, and her scenes with Mayer’s world-weary Monk are particularly memorable. There are also strong performances from Bratkowski as the dejected, emotionally numb Quentin, Sanz-Agero as the affable but exasperated Steve, and Milford as the young, effusively optimistic Bobby.

The bar is represented in vivid detail by means of Dunsi Dai’s meticulous set, and the early 70’s-era costumes by Robin McGee suit the characters well. There’s also terrific lighting from Michael Sullivan that helps set the mood and tone of the play, and excellent sound by Michael Perkins. The beach setting of the play is well-realized here in sight, sound, and overall atmosphere.

Small Craft Warnings is full of strong character moments, but it’s essentially a talking play—a collection of characters sharing their hopes, and mostly their disappointments, with the audience. It’s Williams, though, and it has its profound moments, excellently played by a superb cast. There’s one more weekend left to see it, and it’s a worth catching while there’s still time.,

Small Craft Warnings is running at The .Zack until May 14, 2017

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Love?Actually
Directed by Christina Rios
R-S Theatrics
September 1, 2016

Eileen Engel, Lindsay Gingrich Photo by Michael Young R-S Theatrics

Eileen Engel, Lindsay Gingrich
Photo by Michael Young
R-S Theatrics

R-S Theatrics starts out it new season at Westport Playhouse this year, tackling the subject of (possibly) unrequited love. Billed as “Love?Actually”, their latest show is really two one-act shows and a cabaret, featuring a talented cast of actors and singers. Everything is simply staged, but that helps to highlight the excellent performances.

The first part of the evening was an inventive cabaret segment called “Out of a Bowl”, titled as such because of its format. Audience members were brought on stage to pull slips of paper from a bowl, determining which performers would sing and in what order. There were two solos, two duets, and a group number, along with a hilarious sketch by Colleen Backer featuring a Mount Rushmore tour guide on her last day of work, and her ingenious way of getting revenge on her boss, who is also her ex-lover. The songs were a mixture of musical theatre and pop, well-performed by the excellent cast members, including Lindsay Gingrich with a hilarious rendition of “Gooch’s Song” from Mame, Kelvin Urday with an emotional rearrangement of “Mr. Brightside” by the Killers, and Omega Jones and Eileen Engel with a gloriously over-the-top performance of “The Song That Goes Like This” from Spamalot. Everyone is excellent here, and the selection of singers and songs is likely to change every performance, so the audience is in for a pleasant surprise.

Act 2 was a performance of Steven Serpa’s short opera “Thyrsis and Amaranth”, in which a pair of bridesmaids at a wedding sing about their feelings of love. Thyrsis (Lindsay Gingrich) and Amaranth (Eileen Engel) are close friends who grew up together. Thyrsis is clearly in love with Amaranth and allows herself to hope that her feelings are returned, as Amaranth sings of feelings for the initially unnamed object of her affections. As she agonizes over how to express her love, the bride, groom, wedding guests and workers pass by in the background, playing out their own silent little stories that serve as a backdrop to the main plot. Both lead performers sing superbly, and the real sense of affection is obvious and apparent between both characters. Gingrich is particularly affecting as the lovestruck, melancholy Thyrsis, and Engel is also convincing as the more cheerful Amaranth.

Next up in the evening’s performances is “21 Chump Street” a one-act musical by one of Broadway’s most talked-about composer-performers, Lin-Manuel Miranda.  The hip-hop and pop-based score is characteristic of Miranda’s style, and the subject matter is engaging and thought-provoking. Set in a Florida high school, the show starts out as a seemingly routine story of a promising young student, Justin (Kelvin Urday) developing a crush on a new student, Naomi (Natasha Toro). What Justin doesn’t know, however, is that “Naomi” is actually a 25-year-old undercover police officer who has been planted at the school to find and arrest drug dealers, and the unwitting, infatuated Justin is caught in her trap. This is an excellent, extremely provocative show, exploring various issues such as abuse of authority, teenage drug use and whether or not marijuana should even be illegal in the first place. All of the performers are excellent, especially Urday as the devoted Justin, Toro as the determined officer, and Sarajane Alverson as the narrator/teacher/interviewer. They are supported by a strong, energetic ensemble (Kevin J. Corpuz, Omega Jones, and Phil Leveling) as Justin’s classmates.  There’s a lot here in this very short piece–humor, drama, conflict, and controversy, and it’s performed with utmost excellence.

The acting and singing is well supported by the technical aspects, with effective set design by Keller Ryan, strong lighting by Nathan Schroeder, and well-suited costumes by Amy Harrison. The production fits well into the small space at the Westport Playhouse, as well. It’s an ideal showcase for R-S Theatrics’ talented ensemble, exploring the complexities and confusions of love that isn’t necessarily requited.

Natasha Toro, Kelvin Urday Photo by Michael Young R-S Theatrics

Natasha Toro, Kelvin Urday
Photo by Michael Young
R-S Theatrics

“Love?Actually” is being presented by R-S Theatrics at the Westport Playhouse until September 18, 2016.

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First Lady Suite
by Michael John LaChiusa
Directed by Shualee Cook
R-S Theatrics
September 5th, 2014

Elizabeth Van Pelt Photo by Michael Young R-S Theatrics

Elizabeth Van Pelt
Photo by Michael Young
R-S Theatrics

I was looking forward to seeing this production of First Lady Suite from R-S Theatrics. Their production of Parade last year is still one of my favorite musical productions that I’ve seen in St. Louis. Presented again at the grand Ivory Theatre, this production held a lot of promise for me, but I was ultimately disappointed, although that disappointment is more the result of the material than the production itself. R-S Theatrics has assembled a great cast, and the production values are good, but alas, First Lady Suite is not the exquisitely written, important piece of theatre that is Parade.  It gives me a lot of mixed feelings, since I think it’s an interesting idea, and R-S Theatrics has shown some daring in introducing this little-known show to the St. Louis audience.  Still, I wish this excellent cast would have been given better material to perform.

I have to say that I’m something of a Presidential trivia buff. I memorized the names of all the presidents in order when I was about 10 years old, and later I memorized their wives’ names as well. Presidential trivia books and biographies were “fun reading” for me growing up, so anything about presidents and their families piques my interest, at least at first.  The problem with LaChiusa’s work, though, is that there doesn’t seem to be any real purpose for it. Is he celebrating the First Ladies, or is he ridiculing them?  Is he saying this is an important historical role, or a trivial one that people make too much of?  Taking some of the more remembered First Ladies in recent history–Jackie Kennedy, Mamie Eisenhower, Bess Truman and Eleanor Roosevelt–and presenting them in such unexpected ways sounds like a good idea, but what LaChiusa has produced just seems muddled, confusing, and occasionally needlessly disrespectful. This is historical absurdity with no obvious point, with a score that is largely tuneless and unmemorable.  There are some interesting ideas here in terms of focusing on the supporting players behind the First Ladies, but the script leaves a lot to be desired and much to wonder about.

There are four stories here, with differing degrees of fantasy and absurdity.  “Over Texas” focuses on the Kennedy staff–the First Lady’s insecure secretary Mary Gallagher (Katie Donnelly), and the President’s somewhat infatuated secretary Evelyn Lincoln (Kay Love)–as they make the fateful journey to Dallas in November, 1963. “Where’s Mamie?” takes Mamie Eisenhower (Elizabeth Van Pelt) on a fantastical odyssey from her White House bedroom to Little Rock, Arkansas and Algiers, with opera singer Marian Anderson (Jeanitta Perkins) along for the ride. “Olio” features a short singing recital by First Daughter Margaret Truman (Christina Rios), presided over by a particularly boorish version of her mother, Bess (Nathan Robert Hinds). The last and longest segment is “Eleanor Sleeps Here”, in which a bizarrely vapid and capricious Eleanor Roosevelt (Kay Love) is taken on an impromptu flight over Washington, DC by famed pilot Amelia Earhart (Belinda Quimby), sparking the jealous ramblings of Eleanor’s close friend and confidant, former news reporter Lorena “Hick” Hickok (Rachel Hanks).  Many historians believe the relationship between Hick and Eleanor was romantic, and that’s LaChiusa’s take, except the way this is written, it seems like the two have little in common and can barely stand each other. The oddest thing about these selections is that most of the First Ladies don’t come across very well–Jacqueline Kennedy (Christina Rios) is aloof and demanding, Lady Bird Johnson (Belinda Quimby) is a clueless airhead, Bess Truman  (Nathan Robert Hinds),  is portrayed as crass, boorish and insensitive; and Eleanor Roosevelt seems flighty and not particularly bright. The only First Lady who leaves a generally positive impression is Mamie Eisenhower, in a departure from the stingy and shrewish way she’s been portrayed. elsewhere. Here, she’s spunky and girlish, determined to change history and break out of the “rules” her husband (also Hinds) has set for her.  That segment is easily the most entertaining of the evening because of Van Pelt’s dynamic performance, although it’s not perfect either, since it oddly trivializes the desegregation crisis in Little Rock.

Despite the difficult script and unmemorable score, however, the cast is very strong, and the production values are impressive. Especially notable technically are Amy Harrison’s richly detailed costumes.  The performers do their best with this material, as well. In addition to the production’s stand-out, Van Pelt, there are also strong performances from Donnelly as the self-doubting Gallagher,  Hinds as Dwight Eisenhower, Hanks as Hick, Quimby as Amelia Earhart, Rios as Jackie Kennedy and Margaret Truman, Perkins as Marian Anderson, and Love as Evelyn Lincoln and (making the most of an underwritten role) Eleanor Roosevelt.  The show opens with a promising ensemble number in which various First Ladies sing about the difficulty of the job, and it closes with a similar number, and these segments are probably the best parts of the show.

It’s a frustrating experience as a reviewer and a theatre fan to see such a well-produced production of a show that I don’t particularly enjoy.  As weak and confusing as the script is, though, this cast and crew have made the most of it, making it worth seeing just for the sake of the strong performances. R-S Theatrics continues to take risks in their productions, and that’s a good thing even when the risks don’t always pay off.

Katie Donnelly, Kay Love Photo by Michael Young R-S Theatrics

Katie Donnelly, Kay Love
Photo by Michael Young
R-S Theatrics

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